As we start 2018, here is my annual list of internet truths: observations and advice that serve as the “warning label” on a technology woven into the fabric of daily existence.
• You can’t trust the internet. Fake news, clickbait headlines, agenda-driven content, malicious gossip, biased opinions disguised as unbiased views, statements and images deliberately taken out of context, digitally altered photos, video and audio: Be skeptical of everything online. Try to verify the legitimacy of anything you read, see, view or hear online — especially before passing it along as fact. The truth is out there, but it is increasingly difficult to find in the growing social cesspool that is consuming the digital world.
• Think before you post. It seems every day a politician, celebrity or business is posting a “regret” statement after earlier posting something sent in the emotionally charged heat of a moment. It is not necessarily a good thing that the internet makes it possible to immediately respond to events as they happen. The world does not need your golden opinion or snarky comment on every issue. Think before you click. Then think again. More often than not, keeping your digital opinion to yourself is often the best response.
• Expect a negative reaction to anything you post. We live in a world filled with many angry, perpetually offended, thin-skinned provocateurs who see racism, sexism and every other kind of ism lurking behind every word, sentence, idea and image. The internet provides a global platform and an inflated sense of importance to these people. Expect that anything you post online, even the most innocuous statement or image, will be attacked, criticized or condemned by someone. After all, there are nearly 4 billion people using the internet, and you can’t please them all. A rough rule of thumb in the digital age is to always expect 2 to 5 percent of an audience to hate anything you say.
• The internet doesn’t forget. Whatever you put online will stay online, waiting to embarrass or hurt you now and years down the road. Don’t think you’re safe because you deleted that tweet or pulled that photo. Once posted online — even for a moment — people can copy or screen grab your material. In the real world, past indiscretions, past opinions often fade and are forgotten with the passage of time. Not so in the digital world. You are what you post, and what you post doesn’t change with the years, even if you have.
• Don’t go online without protection. In 2004, the average time for an unprotected computer to fall victim to online viruses and attackers was four minutes. Today, it is seconds. Attackers have more sophisticated toolkits and can quietly take over your computer, use it to send more viruses and bots, or make your computer and its contents inaccessible unless you pay a ransom. Before going online, make sure your device is running virus and spam protection.
• You’re online, even if you aren’t online. Even if you’ve never been online, there’s information about you in the digital world. Various public records are routinely made available via the internet, including court records, births, deaths, marriages, divorces, bankruptcies, property tax values and assessments. The print and broadcast media have been posting content online for at least the past 20 years. Newspaper edition archives, most going back hundreds of years, are accessible and searchable online. You may be referenced in stories posted by friends and acquaintances. Google Maps offers satellite views of where you live and driving directions to your front door. It’s not a choice of whether or not you want to be online. You’re already there.
• Nothing is safe online. People are the weak link when it comes to protecting information stored on the Web. You may be the most security conscious person in the world, but that can’t help you when the ones processing your credit card information for an online purchase aren’t as conscientious. Or when a friend or acquaintance shares personal information about you in a Facebook post. Or someone with your email address doesn’t use virus protection software. Be cautious with what you share online, but also monitor bank accounts, credit statements and credit reports for unfamiliar charges. And regularly update passwords.
• Despite it all, the internet has been a positive force. For all its woes, the internet has made improvements to our lives, most of which are neatly bundled into ubiquitous smartphones: video and audio entertainment on demand, live video streaming, high-resolution digital photography and video, accurate navigation services, management of internet-connected homes and home services, global communications and online shopping. At this point in the digital revolution, the overall good still outweighs the bad. So, use it with caution and a healthy dose of skepticism.
Keith Darnay is the Tribune’s online manager and has worked in the online world for more than two decades. His site is at www.darnay.com.